© 2009 FrontLine Defence (Vol 6, No 6)

The Fixed Wing Search and Rescue project is not the longest program in the history of the Department of National Defence, nor is it the most complex or even the most expensive. But it’s well on the way to becoming the most frustrating!

It’s time to stop stonewalling ... and buy something!

It shouldn’t be this difficult. The military has a requirement to replace its 42-year-old CC115 Buffalo (below) and 45-year-old CC130 Hercules search and rescue aircraft. It’s not a complex piece of kit – basically the military needs a turboprop aircraft that can take off and land on rough runways, and have sufficient range to fly from a main operating base to the North Pole, with one refueling stop, undertake a one hour rescue mission, and recover to a nearby airfield.

The Air Force has had the FWSAR near the top of its equipment requirements for several years. Back in 2003, Colonel Dave Burt, then-director of air requirements (DAR), told Jane’s Defence Weekly that operating both the aging Buffalo and Hercules fleets getting beyond 2010 “would present some significant challenges with significant costs.” At that time he was expecting the air force to refine the operational requirement with a view to issuing a Request for Proposals in mid-2004, leading to a first aircraft delivery in 2007.

Burt’s optimism was justified given that a few months later, the government of Prime Minister Paul Martin issued its 2004 budget which stated: “a major priority for Canada’s military is the purchase of modern Fixed-Wing Search and Rescue aircraft … Under [DND’s] current plan, deliveries of the new aircraft will begin much later in the decade. This budget sets aside non-budgetary resources to allow [DND] to move this acquisition forward in time without displacing other planned capital investments.” By doing so, “the Government will accelerate the process so that deliveries can begin within 12 to 18 months.”

But this fast-tracking never happened. A detailed draft Statement of Requirements prepared in 2006 has never been finalized and released. An attempt by DND to gain approval for an omnibus procurement package that included the FWSAR failed as the politicians worried about public fallout for the expenditure of billions of dollars on military hardware and industry protested that their interests were being ignored in the push to sole source equipment from offshore ­suppliers.

In October 2006, former Assistant Deputy Minister (Materiel) Alan Williams told the Senate Standing Committee on National Security and Defence that in the years since the government announced it was fast-tracking the project, “we have not done a thing.” He said, “the primary reason for not doing a thing was that rather than go through the door straightforwardly, and develop a requirement package that we could then complete, there were continuous efforts to develop specifications that would allow [just] one company to compete.”

While not admitting it publicly, the Air Force wanted the Alenia C27J and preferably, it wanted it without competition. Williams said, “we should have, and could have, put out a requirement to allow more than one competitor to play. That would have allowed Canadian industry to be part of the different consortiums and to allow the minister to get up and say, I am not predetermining [a winner].”

The Canadian aerospace industry has refused to sit quietly and let another multi-billion dollar contract go offshore without any opportunity to compete. Leading the pack opposing the all-but-done-deal was Bombardier, which wanted a chance to offer its Dash 8 Q 400 series aircraft. The air force reportedly argues that the C27J is the only aircraft to meet its requirements (those unpublished requirements) so using an Advance Contract Award Notice (ACAN) would save time and money. Supporters of this approach argue that Canadian industry will not be shut out, because Alenia will be contractually bound to place an amount of work equal to the contract value with Canadian companies. The problem is, say opponents, that work will not be of sufficiently high quality.

The Contenders

  • Alenia C27J – the aircraft touted as meeting all of the Canadian military’s (unreleased) requirements, Alenia is emphasizing its speed, range, cabin and door dimensions (cabin height: 2.6m (8.53ft)), manoeuvrability and cockpit visibility and some commonality with the C130J. Critics are concerned about its acquisition and operating costs.
  • EADS CASA C295 – less expensive than the C27J, the aircraft’s other advantages include its long cabin, cabin height of 1.93m (6ft 3in), low-speed and low-level manoeuvrability for searches and mountain operations, and its Pratt & Whitney Canada engines. As well, the aircraft has been widely adapted for coastal patrol and surveillance functions. Critics are concerned about its speed and cockpit visibility.
  • Bombardier Dash 8 Q Series 400 – a Canadian-designed and built aircraft with Pratt & Whitney Canada engines. The 200 and 300 series are used by several nations in the coastal surveillance role. Critics are concerned about its lack of a rear ramp as well as its speed and range.
  • Viking DHC-5NG Buffalo – another Canadian-designed and built aircraft with Pratt & Whitney Canada engines. Viking is proposing the next generation of an aircraft that has served the air force well in the SAR role. There are concerns about the unpressurized cabin (Viking intends to pressurize the cockpit) and the cost of engineering a new ­generation Buffalo with unknown international marketability

The Military’s High-level Requirements for FWSAR
(as shown in a slide presentation at the Industry Day)

  • Be able to provide life saving assistance to a SAR incident at any point in the SAR region, conduct a 1 hour search and recover to a useable airfield, all within a 15-hour crew day;
  • Be able to fly from one of four current operating bases to any point in the Search and Rescue Region, conduct a minimum 1 hour search, and safely recover to a ­useable airfield with sufficient fuel reserves;
  • Be capable of safely and effectively conducting search and rescue manoeuvres ­equivalent to those currently performed;
  • Cockpit visibility to allow the crew to safely conduct the manoeuvring demanded by the mission, particularly within the low level, confined mountainous environment. It is imperative that both pilots have fields of view sufficient to allow them to see and avoid terrain. Additionally, this visibility should optimize the pilot’s ability to maintain visual contact with the crash site and/or the victim once found;
  • A cargo compartment of sufficient, unobstructed height and width to provide the SAR Tech with the clearance required to safely perform all necessary ground and ­airborne tasks, with the normal SAR cargo load onboard;
  • The selected aircraft must be certified to aviation certification standards recognized by Canada by the solicitation date; and
  • The solution must be fully delivered within 60 months of the contract award date.

Even though the two frontrunners in any competition would be the Alenia C27J Spartan and the EADS CASA C295 – both foreign-built aircraft – Canadian industry would still benefit from a competition. As one company rep noted, in an open competition, the bidders would put teams together to provide solutions that would involve Canadian industry from day one, as opposed to “this ludicrous approach where the government picks the OEM [original equipment manufacturer] and then years later, the OEM runs competitions in Canada but keeps all the high value jobs for themselves – and you’ve got Canadian industry fighting it out for the scraps, the low end jobs.” He says the OEM will hide behind intellectual property rights and say “we can’t let this go, you didn’t pay for this data. This is valuable data, we don’t let this go to anybody. Well that’s baloney. If you’re in an open competition you’d see how quickly the data would be made available!”

With the recent announcement that the Canadian aerospace industry has fallen from fourth to fifth place in the world, this is an argument that the politicians cannot ignore.

Meanwhile, the Air Force has been focusing its efforts on acquiring aircraft that would be useful for Afghanistan and future expeditionary roles – the C17, the C130J, and the CH147 Chinook – and it doesn’t have enough people to run yet another procurement program. They are probably not unhappy about the delay caused by standing firm on their aircraft of choice.

The air force has continued to keep quiet about the program, sharing little information with the industry. In a 2007 interview with FrontLine, then-Chief of the Air Staff, Lieutenant-General Angus Watt blandly stated that the FWSAR project had “run into some procurement challenges” and “we’re working to repackage the program to make it more palatable.” What that would entail was not made clear, although it apparently involved increasing the number of aircraft from 15 to 17, as stated in the May 2008 Canada First Defence Strategy (CFDS).

By December 2008, Defence Minister Peter MacKay was claiming “there is no greater priority right now for the armed forces” and there were rumours that the FWSAR project was about to move forward. However, the only movement came seven months later, when the government held an Industry Day, but the logistics of it – more than 150 people crammed into and around a room for 20, with a microphone and audio system that failed – suggests that the organizers were not exactly committed to the process.

Moreover, despite having had this project in the starting blocks for the past six years, officials did not provide information on requirements, numbers, schedule or budget. Brigadier-General Gregory Matte, who was the DAR until his new posting this past summer, told the participants that “we have to live within the resource constraints that we have” – but he didn’t say what those were. He merely noted that “parts of those resource constraints are financial – how much can be allocated to this particular project, recognizing that it is one of many.” In April of this year, Matte told an industry conference that the budget for the FWSAR was $1.55 billion. It’s not clear why he refused to repeat that number at the industry day.

The Industry Day participants were given a slide show in which the military set out its “high level” requirements (see box). In a recent interview, Assistant Deputy Minister (Materiel) Dan Ross said “DND Headquarters talks high level performance parameters automatically, which is good – that’s what PWGSC is looking for right away. They are not seeking a detailed SOR with 5,000 mandatories with which to do an evaluation.” Of the FWSAR, Ross said, “At this point in the acquisition process, the department has no preferred option… as the options become clearer, government will eventually post its minimum contractable requirements and provide the detailed draft elements of an RFP.”

At the Industry Day, those interested in winning the contract were told they were free to propose their solution for the military’s FWSAR project. They were to make their submissions by September 15, but were encouraged to submit whatever they wanted in whatever format, causing one participant to label it “free-for-all creative writing.” The contenders will be stressing their particular technical strengths (see box), but some of the other considerations include the following:

• Numbers
While the CFDS called for 17 FWSAR aircraft, that number is not absolute. With DND ostensibly offering to consider other solutions, it’s possible that the air force could buy a larger number of a less expensive aircraft which could then be dispersed to more bases, including Yellowknife, as long as everything fits within the budget allocated by the government. Certainly, acquiring enough aircraft to be able to base a SAR unit in Yellowknife should be a requirement, given the government’s interest in developing the Arctic.

Speaking of Yellowknife, a company might want to offer to include replacements for the four CC138 Twin Otter northern utility aircraft based there and even the four CT142 Dash 8 navigation trainers, if it could show that substantial life cycle savings and operational flexibility would make it a worthwhile capital investment.

• Lift Capacity and Ramp
If a secondary role of tactical airlift is a consi­deration, defence analyst Martin Shadwick has suggested some innovative trade-offs. “If, for example, one of the less expensive contenders is credible in the SAR role, but offers less than desired airlift capability, could savings in the acquisition and ­operating costs of that contender be applied to the purchase of some additional CC130J capacity?”
The air force wants an aircraft with a rear ramp for easy loading and dispatch of ­survival equipment and SAR Techs. Bombardier is arguing that the ramp is not needed (the Dash 8 does not have a ramp) and points to the countries that already use Dash 8s for SAR, albeit not in a primary role.

The ramps have been repeatedly identified by SAR Technicians as an important factor for jumping safely from an aircraft.

• Sensors
There has been no word on what sensors the military would like to include in the new FWSAR, so the field is wide open. While former Chief of the Air Staff, LGen Angus Watt, has said in an interview that the “Mark I eyeball” is the key sensor, the air force would be wise to add others. Adding an electo-optical/infra-red sensor package would increase the aircraft’s ability to find people lost in the Arctic and life rafts adrift in the ocean, and importantly, to conduct night searches. Adding EO/IR (electro-optical/infrared) sensors and radar would also allow the aircraft to be used in a maritime surveillance role.

• In-Service Support
At the Industry Day, Mr. Alain Bedard of Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC) was unable to indicate what the service support arrangements would be for the aircraft, including whether or not the air force would provide first and second line support. This is important information for anyone intending to bid on the contract.

Both the C27J and C130J are powered by Allison AE 2100 turboshaft engines and fitted with Dowty R391 propellers. This would suggest that there are potential savings to be had in terms of maintenance personnel, training and spare parts if the air force intends to keep responsibility for first and second line maintenance in house. Those savings would be nullified, or at the very least, difficult to quantify, however, if that maintenance were to be contracted out, as it was in the case of the CH149 ­Cormorant helicopter.

• Privatization
One other aspect that is being discussed on the sidelines is the possible privatization of search and rescue. To some, this makes sense, claiming private industry could provide the service at a much cheaper cost – they point to countries such as Australia that have opted to go this route. Within Canada, there is certainly no shortage of companies that have experience providing air services to the government. Top Aces Consulting Inc., in Montreal, has won more than $100 million worth of contracts for air combat support. Provincial Airlines Limited in St. John’s, Newfoundland, has provided maritime surveillance services to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans for the past 20 years (and interestingly, General Rick Hillier recently joined the company’s Advisory Board). Then there is Bombardier, which runs the NATO Flying Training in Canada program and would be very happy to provide its planes as well as provide the service for a privatized SAR capability.

However, privatization of the SAR service remains a remote possibility for now, with opponents questioning the cost savings and the effect on morale within the air force if the mission was taken away.

Despite some optimism that the absence of details at the Industry Day could be viewed as DND and the government being flexible on requirements, others believe that it all just amounts to a show, that nothing will change the military’s determination to acquire Alenia’s C27J. That view was borne out by two recent ministerial meetings on the project. According to insiders, military officials at the meetings stood their ground, arguing that the requirements they have – which favour the C27J – are not negotiable. Their stance, quietly supported by Defence ­Minister Peter MacKay, was not well received by other ministers – notably Industry ­Minister Tony Clement who is pushing for a fair and open competition – or other department officials such as those from Treasury Board.

Apparently the only thing they could finally agree on was a third party committee to oversee the process. It will be made up of academics and experts from outside of DND and industry. Don’t expect any public announcement on it, however. The politicians do not want any more attention paid to this controversial program.

None of this bodes well for the program. With DND digging in its heels, and with other government departments – and the PMO – viewing the military’s rationale with increasing suspicion, there’s a good chance the FWSAR project is not going to move forward any time soon. In fact, it’s entirely possible that the air force will have to back off from this project, lie low for a few years, and then try to relaunch it. Or not. A recent Air Force paper, “Projecting Power: Trends Shaping Canada’s Air Force in the Year 2019” concluded that “By 2019, it is envisioned that the persistent capabilities of UAVs and satellites will have displaced the requirement for manned aircraft in the search portion of a SAR mission. The rescue portion of a SAR mission will still require a manned air vehicle.” So while the Air Force will still need helicopters, a FWSAR aircraft may no longer be necessary.

Regardless of what happens to the FWSAR project, the ill feeling that the air force and other DND officials have generated over this project, could very well spill over into other military procurement programs, spreading the hurt around.

Sharon Hobson is the Canadian Correspondent for Jane’s Defence Weekly.
© FrontLine Defence 2009